Alison Douglas: Give children a sporting chance on alcohol

Celtic advertise Magners cider on their shirts. Picture: John Devlin
Celtic advertise Magners cider on their shirts. Picture: John Devlin
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SPONSORSHIP is as unsuitable for drink as it is for tobacco, writes Alison Douglas

The appeal of sports sponsorship to children and young people is obvious and long-lasting – nearly 40 years on I can still remember how much I coveted the John Player Special Formula One matchbox car my friend Colin had. Tobacco sports sponsorship was banned in 2005 and it would now be considered outrageous for high-profile teams like Celtic to be brand ambassadors for tobacco – so why is it acceptable for alcohol?

Major alcohol brands are prominent in almost every high profile sporting event today, from the Olympics to the Champions League, Ryder Cup, Formula One and Wimbledon.

The Celtic football team advertise Magners cider on their shirts, while the Scottish Football Association has a seven figure ‘official beer partner’ sponsorship deal with Tennent’s. Scottish Rugby has several alcohol deals which means the brands Guinness, Crabbies and Caledonia Best are all over Murrayfield.

Why do companies spend over £300 million on sponsoring sports in the UK? It’s not for love of the game, or a genuine wish to support grassroots development. It’s a business tactic to increase brand awareness and boost sales and profits – and it works. Alcohol companies are eager to align themselves with the positive, healthy image of sport and gain access to new customers. Advertising agencies, media buyers and broadcasters also do very well from these tie-ups.

The simple truth is that alcohol and sport don’t mix. New guidelines issued by the UK Chief Medical Officers recommend not drinking alcohol at all before, during or directly after active physical sport. Many top athletes and sports stars are teetotal, recognising the impact that alcohol can have on their training regime, fitness and performance.

Yet alcohol brands are allowed to dominate sporting events that attract significant numbers of children as well as adults. Sports sponsorship enables companies to establish a link between their brand and our sporting heroes at a deep, emotional level.

It provides companies with direct and regular access to impressionable young people who are most susceptible to positive, risk-free messaging about alcohol and to the effects of alcohol itself.

There is strong evidence that exposure to alcohol marketing leads young people to drink at an earlier age, and to drink more.

Over two-thirds of people in Scotland agree that children are getting the message that drinking alcohol is a normal part of enjoying sports events.

Scottish Women’s Football showed fantastic leadership when they decided not to accept sponsorship from companies in the alcohol or gambling industries because “we want women’s football to be a clean sport, and one which helps to educate young girls. There are huge problems, in the west of Scotland especially, with gambling and alcoholism…it would be absolutely crazy to allow little girls and women to be running around in strips endorsing these sectors.” Unfortunately others have been slow to follow.

That’s why Alcohol Focus Scotland, along with BMA (Scotland), Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) and Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs, is asking politicians to sign our pledge: “I believe that alcohol marketing has no place in childhood.”

We think children have the right to play, learn and socialise in places that are free from alcohol marketing, and we have received support from all of the political parties.

The Scottish Parliament has the power to restrict alcohol sponsorship of events in Scotland, and 70 per cent of Scots support this. It’s true that removing alcohol sponsorship from sport won’t break the link completely as television is the most common medium for watching sport and broadcast advertising is reserved to Westminster.

However, Scotland has taken the lead in other public health initiatives which England then followed and we can do the same again.

• Alison Douglas, Chief Executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland